Once Upon a Generation: The Prolific John Hughes

By Kevin Nelson · January 10, 2022

Explore the John Hughes films that defined an entire generation.

For every generation, there are a handful of iconic artists who emerge at the head of the pack whose creations come to define and reflect the era in which they live. Their unstoppable creative drives deliver hit after hit and audiences can’t seem to get enough.

John Hughes was a force of nature and one of the most influential and prolific writers of American cinema in the 1980s and 90s.

Hughes acted as a one-man story factory. For over two decades, Hughes wrote, directed, and/or produced thirty feature screenplays, many of which are considered classics. In later years, Hughes even used the pseudonym Edmond Dantès, proving that his genius was too much for one man alone. 

Hughes was a student of the old adage, write what you know. His signature style captured the essence of teenagers growing up in the suburbs during the eighties while offering an honest portrayal of the struggles that teenagers face as they come of age.

Here are some of the best screenplays that capture the spirit of the Hughes Generation.

Scripts from this Article

Mr. Mom

After dropping out of college, Hughes found himself writing jokes for comedic acts such as Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. During this time, he landed a copywriting gig that often brought him to New York where he would visit the offices of National Lampoon magazine. He soon became a contributor, and it was hard for the monthly magazine to keep up with his creative output. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner became a fan of his work and they became friends. 

One day, Hughes was telling Lauren about how his wife went on vacation and left him in charge of their two boys. He had no idea what he was doing and he had Lauren dying laughing. He asked if it would make a good movie and she agreed. He then told her he had eighty pages in his drawer and asked if she’d like to read it. They developed the script together but ultimately lost control when the producers grew upset that Hughes was working out of Chicago. They brought on a team of television writers to tackle the rewrite but Hughes still got sole credit. 

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National Lampoon’s Vacation

In 1979, while hunkered down during a Chicago blizzard, Hughes began writing the short story Vacation ‘58, a fictional story based on his family vacations as a child. After the success of Animal House, National Lampoon decided to adapt more of their stories into films. 

Warner Bros. bought the rights to the short story and Hughes wrote the first draft. The script was rewritten by Lampoon alumni Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase. They switched the point of view from the son to the father and a beloved franchise was born.

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Sixteen Candles

Harold Ramis was known for speed writing scripts. It’s said that he wrote the script for Sixteen Candles over a Fourth of July weekend. This was Hughes’s directorial debut, and the first film delivered to Universal Pictures as a part of their three-picture deal. It helped establish his signature storytelling style.

The film would act as the template for teen comedies centered around young teenage women for years to come, but it hasn’t aged particularly well. Trigger warning, the screenplay contains depictions of racist stereotypes and glosses over scenes featuring sexual assault. Many apologists point out that this was just the way things were back then, and Hughes was simply capturing that. Yet, the lighthearted nature in which these problematic themes are depicted doesn’t sit well with contemporary audiences, and for good reason.

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The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club was groundbreaking in its portrayal of teenagers navigating the burdens of social constructs in high school. It was possibly the first teen comedy to explore the caste and clique systems that all teens face by giving the characters depth while leaving out the raunchy humor. Just a group of different kids from different backgrounds forced into a single location where they must find common ground and a great deal of empathy along the way. They tear down their prejudices and narrow world views to emerge much more than their archetypes. 

Hughes looked beyond these archetypes to create multifaceted characters who are grappling with the pressure of living within these societal roles. Hughes ultimately convinced Universal Pictures to take a chance on a young inexperienced filmmaker on a million-dollar budget. It wasn’t an easy shoot, but the entire cast and crew made cinematic history and changed the course of coming-of-age storytelling.

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Weird Science

Keeping up his proficiency, Hughes is said to have written Weird Science in just two days. He recycled the title from a 1950s science fiction comic book anthology series. The success of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom earned him a three-picture deal with Universal Pictures, but he was having a hard time convincing them to let him direct The Breakfast Club. He only agreed to direct Weird Science on the condition that they allow him to direct both. So he was juggling directing duties and his focus might have been more geared towards the former. 

Weird Science is one of Hughes’s wilder outings but still contains familiarity in his witty dialogue and the setting — the same fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, from Sixteen Candles

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Pretty in Pink

John Hughes remained a busy man for the rest of the decade, riding his wave of success and taking advantage of the momentum. He followed up his deal with Universal by letting director Howard Deutch take over directorial duties on Pretty in Pink over at Paramount Pictures. In it, instead of focusing on the political dynamics of high school, Hughes focused on class dynamics. One thing remained the same though, and that’s Hughes’s leading lady Molly Ringwald.

Before working with her on Sixteen Candles, he picked out her headshot from a stack of casting portraits and hung it above his desk. She became his muse and they developed a strong working relationship over the years. 

His original ending for the film didn’t test well. It’s said that the audience even booed when Andie and Duckie ended up together instead of Andie and Blane. Hughes rewrote the last five pages and they reshot them. Audiences overwhelmingly approved of the change. Sometimes you gotta make concessions and give them what they want.

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Returning to the director’s chair, Hughes delivered one of his most seminal films. A common narrative technique that Hughes often employs is the episodic narrative. His characters go on journeys. Some are literal road trips, like the next film, while others focus on a day in the lives of his characters. 

Hughes described his writing process in The Making of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off DVD Bonus Feature. He became known for speed writing. Essentially he’d lock himself away for hours on end until the story was done. For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes was tipped off by his agent of an impending writers’ strike. So he thought, “Jeez, John, you better write something.”

From a single sentence, Hughes had the premise of a kid who decides to skip school. He called Ned Tanen at Paramount and pitched him that simple premise and he got to work. He said it took him, “about four days to write one of these things.” 

He made the deadline by knowing how the story began and how it ended. The rest was a journey with the characters where he struck out to, as he said, “surprise myself throughout.”

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

If it seemed like John Hughes was trying to beat his time on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s because he did — writing the 145-page script for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in three days. During a tribute event, editor Paul Hirsch stated that Hughes wrote sixty pages in six hours. Hughes was able to tap into a trance-like state and fully immerse himself in the journey of the characters.

Perhaps it came so easily to him because he had his real-life stories as a framework. The film is based on a true hellish travel experience during his days as an ad man, after being diverted by a winter storm while trying to travel from New York to Chicago. As they say, write what you know.  

Fun fact: A single tirade of F-Bombs helped boost this film from PG-13 to Rated R. 

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Uncle Buck

Perhaps the reason why John Hughes was able to create so much great work is that he kept the studios happy. How?

One way he did that was by keeping to a lean budget in order to capitalize revenue. The vacant New Trier High School in Northfield, Illinois served as the production facility for Uncle Buck’s production. Fans might recognize the school from many other Hughes films. The gyms were covered in sound stages and the entire film was shot on location. 

Hughes worked with a young Macaulay Culkin and started to find inspiration for his next project. It all seemed to click into place in a pivotal scene where Culkin interrogates John Candy. 

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

By the late eighties, John Hughes could write anything he wanted. He passed on writing European Vacation but still received a co-writing credit because of the use of his characters and ideas from the original. He said that he only partook in sequels if he felt pressured. The studio kept hounding him for a follow-up Vacation so he finally relented.

“I only agreed because I had a really good story to base it on.” 

That story was a follow-up to his original short story titled Christmas ’59, which was published in the 1980 December issue of National Lampoon Magazine. It’s not often that the third installment of a trilogy or franchise is the best one, but this one may just be the exception.

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Home Alone

Home Alone became a staple in most kids’ lives if they grew up in the eighties and nineties, and exploded into a massive franchise complete with merchandising. Hughes had the idea for the film while getting ready to leave for vacation. He was checking a list of everything he didn’t want to forget and thought, “‘Well, I’d better not forget my kids.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I left my 10-year-old son at home? What would he do?’”

Eight pages of notes quickly turned into the original script. After writer and director Chris Columbus left National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation because of differences with Chevy Chase, Hughes offered him Home Alone or Reach the Rock. Columbus chose correctly. He ran an uncredited rewrite by adding the Old Man Marley to give a more emotional depth to the ending.

The combined force of Columbus and Hughes continues to rock audiences around Christmas trees decades later. 

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John Hughes left us too soon, but with the short amount of time he had on this earth, he certainly made the most of it. His ability to churn out classic after classic places him in prestigious standing. His level of genius only comes around once a lifetime, but contributions and the legacies of artists like John Hughes live on eternally through their work. 

In many ways, he was the writer that we all aspire to be. 

Scripts from this Article